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WHITE WASH

Himachal, snowed under

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CUT OFF: Workers clear a road near Marhi even as the Manali-Leh highway remains blocked under 50 feet of snow

The first few weeks of April have turned out to be quite a treat for tourists holidaying in Manali and the adjoining high-altitude areas. Fleeing the heat in the dusty plains, travellers were in for a surprise when, in addition to already nippy weather, they were greeted with unusually heavy snowfall. "I played in the snow and will cherish the moment forever, " says Sanjida Rahman, a college lecturer in Lucknow, of her April 19 Manali visit.

The late and heavy snow has startled quite a few and is worrying many. It snowed for nine days from April 10-20. Rohtang Pass, say those posted there, is at present reeling under 40-50 feet of snow. "This year's snow has been the heaviest in the last two decades, " says A Vikram Singh, commandent, Border Roads Organisation (BRO), who oversees activities across Rohtang on the Manali-Leh highway. "Some areas have received over 50 feet. " In Himachal, neither the Snow Avalanche Study Establishment (SASE) nor any other organisation has instruments to measure snowfall where Rohtang is, at 13, 050 feet;it is only the BRO that can track this. The pass is now expected to be cleared for vehicular traffic by May 15, almost a month later than its usual time.

Hotel owners, not surprisingly, are a happy lot. Solang Valley Resorts general manager Ravi Sharma expects his property to remain fully occupied till the onset of winter. "Visitors are arriving in droves. The unexpected snowfall will help prolong the tourist season, " he says. The travellers don't have to trek up to Rohtang to see the snow as even low-altitude places like Gulaba, Rahla Fall, Beas Nullah and Marhi are blanketed in white.

Farmers, meanwhile, are getting increasingly anxious as the erratic weather has eaten into the sowing time for their summer crops. Jai Ram, from Hinsa village in Lahaul-Spiti district, hopelessly stares at his field that grows crops of peas and wheat. Last year, the sowing season was over by March-end. This year, though, he will be lucky if the weather permits him to finish the job by the close of April.

Thousands of other farmers, whose source of income is cash crops like peas and potato, are fretting about their future as all subsequent crops they cultivate through the year will get delayed due to the prolonged spell of snow. In fact, there is a sense of urgency in the entire Lahaul-Spiti region. Its residents are also apprehensive that supply lines from across the Rohtang Pass will remain blocked for far longer than they can endure. Usually at this time of the year the pass is bustling with trucks that ferry essential commodities to tribal areas beyond Rohtang, and further into Ladakh.

It's not just the upper reaches, the uncharacteristically long winter has affected cropping patterns in lowlying areas as well. In Kullu, Jindu Ram's apple trees are yet to flower. Last year, his orchards were already blooming with white blossoms by this time. The apple trees additionally face the threat of landslides resulting from excessive moisture in the soil.

Scientists, in turn, are divided on the reasons behind it. Dr JC Kuniyal, senior scientist at the GB Pant Institute of Himalayan Environment and Development at Mohal in Kullu, blames global warming for the mess. "The rise in temperatures in the Himalayan region is not only affecting crop patterns, but also leading to unusual weather, " he says. "Kullu valley has become warmer by 0. 9 degree Celsius and the higher temperatures have shifted the apple belt. In 1965, it existed at a height of 1, 000 m above sea level, now it has moved up north to 2, 000 m. "

Dr Milap Chand Sharma, associate professor of geomorphology, Centre for the Study of Regional Development (Jawaharlal Nehru University), however, discounts the role of global warming. "Snowfall exceeding 5 feet in the Lahaul valley this winter defies the widely held belief of global warming, " he says. "In fact, one needs to be thankful for the extra snow. It will ensure uninterrupted supply of water to the neighbouring states in addition to creating healthy output of hydroelectric power. It will replenish the water-table and drying springs and improve the soil's nutrient profile by assisting nitrogen fixation. "

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